Interview with Marcus Borg on his first novel, ‘Putting Away Childish Things’

The best-selling spiritual writer Thomas Moore puts it simply: Marcus Borg “makes absolute sense.” And the highly respected progressive theologian Walter Brueggemann calls Borg “pastoral” as well as “important, positive and serious” in “rethinking the gospel.” Those comments were in response to Borg’s 2003 milestone, “The Heart of Christianity.” That book with the image of open hands on the cover is symbolic of the turningpoint in Borg’s public image. With the publication of “Heart of Christianity” and popular books on Easter and Christmas, Borg’s image shifted in many Americans’ minds from a sort of stereotypical scholarly bomb thrower—to a compassionate advocate of fresh approaches toward Christianity that will welcome disaffected men and women back to the church.

In recent years, his own professional status has shifted. He retired in 2007 from Oregon State University after 28 years and he now is listed as “distinguished emeretus professor” at his former university. Then, last year, he was installed as the first Canon Theologian of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. In other words, Borg’s professional emphasis is shifting from the halls of academia to active ministry in mainline Christianity.

Now, Borg’s transformation includes his first novel, “Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith,” On Monday, ReadTheSpirit published our review—a strong recommendation—of “Childish Things.” (AND, we provided a brief excerpt involving the charater “Erin,” who you’ll read more about in today’s interview.)

Hightlights of Interview with Bible Scholar Marcus Borg
on His First Novel, “Putting Away Childish Things”

DAVID: Why did you suddenly write a novel after so many years of writing nonfiction?

MARCUS: I could give a number of answers. But, the main one is that I’ve presented my ideas in nonfiction and, now—by creating characters with various points of view in this novel—I can give readers more of a sense of how people struggle with these ideas in everyday life. Now, rather than just me presenting my ideas to readers, characters are in dialogue about the ideas.

A good example is this young woman in the novel, Erin, who is struggling with tensions between her evangelical fellowship group on the campus and new ideas she’s learning in class. She’s now thinking in new ways and that’s difficult.

DAVID: I like Erin in the book. We will give readers a little sample of what Erin is experiencing. But let me challenge you a little bit about the title of the new book: “Putting Away Childish Things.” Don’t you think that sounds a little paternalistic? Like you’re saying that people who don’t agree with the ideas presented on a college campus are childish?

MARCUS: First, the title was the publisher’s idea, but I want to immediately say: I completely agreed with it. I think it’s a great title. So, I’m not off the hook of your question. One title I suggested was “Time after Time.” I love the song, “Time after Time,” and it’s also a phrase that might make people think about the seasons in the church year, both past and present.

But you raise an interesting question: Might someone regard this title as a slap in the face? And, to that, I say first: I haven’t heard that comment myself, so I’m not worried that it’s somehow an aggressive title. Then, second: I don’t think it’s any more critical than Paul’s use of the phrase in 1 Corinthians 13. Just as Paul describes the process, this is a book about people growing in maturity. One way to look at this title is that we’re opening up the experiences on a college campus where young people come year after year in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood.

Professor Marcus Borg Creates Two Fictional Professors

MARISA TOMEI: Perhaps a casting choice for Kate?DAVID: When I began reading your novel, right away I wondered if Kate Riley, the assistant professor we meet in the opening pages, is really Marcus Borg in fictional disguise?

MARCUS: Oh my! Interesting to hear that question. I usually am asked whether the character of Martin is really me.

DAVID: Well, I don’t want to give too many details about the novel in our interview, but both professors seem to embody experiences that I know are part of your life. In the opening scenes, for example, Kate Riley faces a tough radio interview. Things go sour along the way, because of controversial viewpoints.

MARCUS: Well, the general goal in writing fiction is to write about things you know, so a lot of this book does come out of my experience with the world of the academy, the world of publishing, and things like doing public talks and interviews like Kate does in that part of the book. So, yes, you’ll find bits and pieces of myself scattered throughout the novel and particularly in the experiences of Kate and Martin.

I do want to say that I’ve never had a university department that’s as difficult as the department where Kate finds herself at her college. I’ve been fortunate to work in departments where people get along very well and there hasn’t been any backstabbing or undercutting among colleagues. So, in that sense Kate’s experience is based on what I’ve heard from other people—not my own university experience.

DAVID: I had to chuckle over a few passages in the book. I know that you’ve been a guest of probably hundreds of congregations and schools and groups over the years. I chuckled when I read the scene with Martin showing up in a town where the hosts don’t have their program well organized. He finds very annoying problems with the local arrangements. I thought to myself: Hmmm, anyone who reads this novel will never treat Marcus Borg badly on a speaking tour again!

MARCUS: That kind of problem doesn’t happen all that often, I should say. But what Martin experiences on that particular trip is something that’s happened to me, oh, I would say once or twice a year.

ANTHONY HOPKINS: Perhaps a choice to play Martin?DAVID: You’ve actually found yourself in that kind of foul mood because of fouled up arrangements on the ground?

MARCUS: Yes, it can happen. You know, if I’ve flown much of the day and it’s getting toward bedtime and I land somewhere and I’m eager to get to my hotel room—and I discover that no one has made proper arrangements—then, yes, I’ve lived through that kind of scene maybe once or twice a year.

DAVID: I’ve found that, when I’m interviewing the author of a novel, our readers think it’s fun to hear who the author might cast in the roles for a movie version. So, let me ask you who should play Kate and Martin, the professors?

MARCUS: My wife and I have joked about this and, gosh, we haven’t come to any conclusions. But let me speculate here. For Kate, I would want to see someone who looks like she’s in her early 40s—not somebody who’s much younger playing that she’s an older woman. But, I haven’t really thought of anyone except maybe Marissa Tomei.

DAVID: Interesting! And, yes, Marissa Tomei’s stature as an actress certainly is on the rise. She’s been getting rave reviews over the past year or so. And how about Martin?

MARCUS: I don’t have a good answer, but I did say to my wife, “Maybe someone like Anthony Hopkins as he was when he played C.S. Lewis in ‘Shadowlands.’”

DAVID: Another interesting answer. Of course, we can’t roll him back in age, but that gives readers a good feeling for these characters in your book, I think.

Teaching, Preaching and the Timeless Genre of Storytelling

DAVID: You describe your new novel with a term that probably isn’t actually the hottest selling point for people shopping for a “beach read” this summer. You call this new book a “didactic novel.” Now, I think that term may strike people as meaning something like “preachy.” In fact, “didactic” actually means “designed to teach” or “making moral observations.” Talk about your hope of actually teaching people a few things in the course of a novel.

MARCUS: The first thing I need to say is: This is probably the only kind of novel I could write. Secondly, my hope is that, through this novel, I may broaden my readership to include people who may not like to read straight nonfiction. And I don’t mean that in a crass commercial sense. I mean that I have experience with lots of reading groups and I know that there are some readers who simply would not join a small group if they have to read nonfiction. So, this gives congregations and other small reading groups another choice to explore the kinds of ideas I think are so important now.

This idea isn’t unknown. When I met with the editors at Harper, I argued that there is a genre of books like this. Think about Susan Howatch. I would say that her novels are didactic in that you learn a whole lot about the Church of England as you enjoy her novels. Her novels also inspired me a bit. What I mean by that is: When I first started enjoying her books in the early ‘80s, I was reading 100 pages about a Church of England priest about to have a meltdown, for example, and then 200 pages that basically are spiritual direction given by an older priest. I thought: Well, there is a niche in the publishing world for fiction like this! That seed remained in my mind for years, eventually helping me to see that I could write something like this myself.

DAVID: I enjoyed Howatch’s Starbridge series myself. For the benefit of our readers, I’ll point out that you’re describing ““Glittering Images,” the first book in her Starbridge series. But, to be honest, I suppose you could have pointed back to the master of didactic storytelling: Jesus. Right?

MARCUS: (Laughs.) I won’t say yes to that question! I appreciate the point you’re making but I wouldn’t compare my novel to Jesus’ collection of teachings!

DAVID: OK, aside from the modesty of refusing to compare yourself to Jesus, at least this shows that there’s wisdom in storytelling to get your ideas across to people, right?

MARCUS: Sure. That’s true. A lot of people can repeat the “Good Samaritan” or the “Prodigal Son” stories without missing many details. But most people couldn’t list more than a couple of the Beatitudes from memory. You’re absolutely right that people remember stories much better than they remember a straight list of teachings.

DAVID: We recently welcomed Philip Gulley to ReadTheSpirit. He’s done very well with his Harmony series of novels, which put a lot of his spiritual wisdom into fictional form. So, do you think your new novel will become a series? Philip’s done very well with the Harmony books. I won’t spoil the ending of “Childish Things,” but I’d call the final scenes pretty much an open doorway to a sequel.

MARCUS: I know Philip Gulley and I know it’s possible for these series to develop. Yes, I hope this new book does become part of a series. I’ve received quite a number of emails and letters from people who read the new novel the moment it came out and they’re telling me: There’s got to be a sequel. You’ve got to tell us what happens to these people. And, I would like to write at least one sequel with the same main characters.

DAVID: It sounds like you’re writing something else, first.

MARCUS: Harper wants me to do a chronological New Testament with the books organized in chronological order. I would provide the introductions and sidebars. But I do already have a couple of files opened up on my computer where I’m adding potential plot elements for a sequel to this novel. I would guess it might take two years until a sequel is published.

I’m also doing another book called, “Speaking Christian.” That’s a nonfiction book about the idea that religions are like languages. Of course, religion is much more than language, but to be Christian does mean speaking Christian for most people. The language many of us use has contributed to the crisis in Christianity in North America. One problem is that traditional Christian language is becoming less familiar to millions of people. The greater problem, I think, is that the language is frequently misunderstood by people. There are people who assume that Christianity is about the afterlife and that our chief problem in this life is that we’re sinners who need to be punished—and the point of Jesus’ life is that he took our punishment so we can go to heaven. In “Speaking Christian,” I write about the problems we get ourselves into by misunderstanding and limiting the way we think about our faith.

DAVID: Well, certainly since your book “Heart of Christianity,” your body of work has the goal of opening up Christianity to people who’ve felt alienated and excluded. Even in this new novel, you’re showing us new ways to think and talk about an ancient tradition.

MARCUS: It’s important to show people ways that we can reclaim Christianity from some of the misunderstandings of our time. I hope that some people who may not feel they can read these ideas in my other books might try it now in the form of this novel.

Want to read the 2003 milestone book by Borg? You can order “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” from Amazon now.

AND, You can order the new novel, “Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith,” from Amazon as well.

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve,” “Eyewitness 4,” “Connecting Like Jesus,” “NRSV: XL Edition” and “Putting Away Childish Things.”)

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